CLARENDON, Va. — It has been 20 years since Major League Soccer opened its inaugural season in the United States, growing slowly and steadily into America’s fifth top-level professional sport. So while many of its stars now make good money nearly on par with the other leagues, they are not necessarily as readily recognized by the general public. They walk an odd line: superstars to some, anonymous to others.
D.C. United forward/midfielder Chris Pontius lives this life in D.C. He was drafted with the seventh overall pick out of UC Santa Barbara by the team seven years ago, spending his entire career in Red and Black. After an All-Star year in 2012, he signed a lucrative three-year extension that made him one of the top-paid American players in the league. And yet he lives a life about as normal as any other 28-year-old when he’s away from the field.
Pontius splits a modest, two-bedroom apartment with fellow Orange County native and teammate Steve Birnbaum in one of Clarendon’s non-descript towers. The décor is minimalist, the space nearly spotless, as bachelor pads go. A handful of photos sit framed on the shelves. Two metal wine racks adorn one living room wall, holding a grand total of one bottle between them.
“Our most prized possession is probably the N64,” Pontius says, motioning over to the classic video game console he retrieved from his parents’ house a couple years ago. “That’s always a hit when people come over.”
Lest you dismiss him for living in Clarendon, Pontius has enjoyed quite the Tour de D.C. in his seven years playing for United. He lived in Dupont Circle his first year, Columbia Heights his second, then moved to Chinatown for two and Courthouse for the last two before settling into his current digs.
When I arrive on Monday around noon, Pontius is lounging on the black leather living room couch, watching an LPGA tournament on the Golf Channel, the television’s default setting. Despite going to school in Santa Barbara, a golfer’s paradise, he didn’t really pick the game up until the last couple of years. Now he plays with Birnbaum and a couple other teammates on a regular basis.
Pontius’s room is similarly tidy. There are nicely framed jerseys with game tickets, one from the 2006 National Championship Game and another from his rookie season in D.C.
“I didn’t know what to ask for for Christmas the past couple of years,” he says.
Most every piece of personality is connected either to Southern California or to Washington.
In the bathroom, there’s a canvas of a map of the District in red and black, painted by former D.C. United teammate Devon McTavish.
Above his bed, there’s a photo print of a surfer, his back to the camera, wetsuit hanging at his hips, board under his arm, the ocean rolling in to his left, strolling away up the horizon.
“I like to keep my life as normal as possible,” he says. “Usually training days are very chill.”
There’s no training this day, but as Pontius did not play in the Sunday game, still making his way back from injury, instead of a day off he’s been prescribed a 20-mile bike ride.
Twenty miles might not sound too arduous, even in the heat of a Washington summer, to those in relative shape. For the first 19 miles — down to the Key Bridge, snaking out the Capital Crescent Trail along the west edge of Georgetown, north to downtown Bethesda (with a quick stop for a cup of coffee) and back — it isn’t so bad.
Along the way, we come along a family in a canoe, rowing up the creek.
“It’s great to see kids outside,” he says as we pass. “You don’t realize how sedentary they’ve become, everybody tucked behind a screen.”
He admits, as we reach the halfway point in the ride, locking the bikes up to grab some coffee in Bethesda, that he didn’t get out much either in his first couple of years in the city.
As we sit down, I realize the entire rest of the patio is staring at us. My first instinct was that they must have recognized him, but I realized it may have simply been due to our profuse sweating.
In fact, Pontius says he is only acknowledged once or twice a day, on average.
“It happens more at sporting events, though,” he says.
Pontius frequents the Wizards and Caps, though he confesses he still doesn’t quite get the strategy of hockey. He’s adopted the Nats as his team, though, and has been able to watch them grow over the past seven years. Whether it’s the professional sports setting, or simply that the type of people attending, he gets far more recognition there.
We head back down the trail, cruising the first nine miles fairly easily. Then comes the final mile, up the incline from Rosslyn back up to Clarendon.
Did I mention this is on a single-speed bike?
At a quick glance, Pontius looks the part of a standard Clarendon resident; perhaps a little more fit, but not noticeably so in a T-shirt and shorts. It’s not until he’s pulling away up a steady grade, legs churning, up out of the saddle nearly the entire stretch, his football-sized calves, locked in a permanent stasis of flex as he powers forward.
When we get back, my clean pair of shorts (the ones I intentionally did not wear on the ride) — snug when I threw them on first thing that morning — hang loose on my hips. It’s a result of the kind of water weight fluctuation that comes with the territory for Pontius and his teammates, especially in a climate like Washington’s.
Players can run six to seven miles or more during a match, often dropping three or four pounds in 90 minutes. Pontus looks down at his digital tracker and informs me that we’ve expended 996 calories on our ride.
That means it’s time to replenish.
The team doesn’t employ a full-time nutritionist, but it does encourage certain habits to help keep weight on during the season. For Pontius and Birnbaum, that means shakes with milk, blueberries, bananas and protein powder, twice a day, every day, around regular meals.
“And spinach,” Pontius adds, then shrugs. “It’s a superfood, right?”
He knocks back a shake, then we head to lunch.
Pontius bought a used Audi with the signing bonus from his first contract, and has since upgraded, but just to another Audi, also used. As we dodge the first raindrops of an incoming storm on the way into Earl’s Sandwiches, he nods at a passing vehicle across the street.
“Now THAT’s what I really want to get around the city,” he says, motioning to a dark green moped as it putters past us. “Of course, our contracts won’t allow for it.”
While he rips through his roasted turkey sandwich with pesto mayo, the weather turns violent outside, lightning crashing down close by and high winds blowing rain sideways down Wilson Boulevard. Flash flood alerts buzz both our phones as he goes up to the glass door to take a picture. The talk turns to the drought in California, and how he is hesitant to move back to his home state.
“I told my parents they should pick up and move to North Carolina,” he says.
For someone who has lived only three places in his life — Orange County, Santa Barbara and D.C. — whose material possessions reflect those places entirely, whose day-to-day life is marked by fairly steady sets of routines, he is more open-minded than you might imagine.
We make the cheapest stop in the history of Whole Foods (seriously, $6 for bananas and milk) before heading home to meet up with Birnbaum. Pontius has just received new Taylor Made golf clubs — a perk of being sponsored by Adidas, its parent company — and wants to test them out on the range before hitting the course.
Neither Pontius nor Birnbaum is as skilled with the sticks as, say, former Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard, who carded a 70 on from the tips of a championship course on a recent off day. But they can still occasionally rip shots off, like a 260-yard 3-wood from Birnbaum into the back fence.
“Now I remember why I hate this place,” jokes Birnbaum on his second swing of the afternoon, when a ball hits a target but fails to register a score.
“Steve feels like the world is against him at all times,” Pontius ribs as some chips and queso arrive.
During his turn Pontius mishits a shot, but it bounces in for 10 points. Birnbaum laments his roommate’s good fortune and drops a phrase both will use to try to get under each other’s skin.
“You can’t feel good about it, though,” he says.
The pair function much like the odd couple this way, Pontius acting as the de facto older brother. Dinner at 6:30, if Birnbaum has his way. In bed by 11.
This night, they settle on a light dinner on the patio at Lyon Hall. Aside from the shakes, the rest of the meals are pretty much up to them. And with so many readily available options nearby, they find it easier, and even cheaper, to eat out rather than cooking for themselves.
“Birnbaum doesn’t cook,” says Pontius. “I cook a little bit.”
The rain long past, the humidity has begun to permeate the air again. It’s a warm night, but not stifling, by D.C. standards. The Southern California native who has lived here for seven years is comfortable; the one who has only been on the east coast a year-and-a-half is still sweating.
But as it is for any professional athlete, it’s hard to ever get truly comfortable. Pontius’ current three-year contract expires after this season, with the club holding an option for an extra year. Considering his injury history, this could be his last run in D.C., a final chance at a championship with the Red and Black.
“The health of Chris Pontius is the X-Factor for Ben Olsen and D.C. United,” said color commentator Taylor Twellman during ESPN’s broadcast of United’s 3-2, come-from-behind win over the Philadelphia Union last Sunday. “If he’s healthy, playing with the Best XI form that we saw in 2012, then they have a real shot at the Supporter’s Shield.”
He should return to the field Saturday at RFK, as D.C. United looks to stay atop the Eastern Conference and add to their point total against Real Salt Lake. Worrying about anything past that — from a Supporter’s Shield to an MLS Cup — is for another day.